The Topsy-Turvy Gender Carnival: The Use of Humor in Little Women

Faculty Sponsor

Professor Sara Danger


Arts and Sciences



Presentation Type

Oral Presentation

Symposium Date

Winter 5-2-2015


Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women depicts the transitions from adolescence to womanhood of Jo March and her three sisters. This transformation demands self-sacrifice and self-denial as the girls cultivate the ideal feminine virtues of piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. And yet, as often as the rhetoric of the text advocates woman’s self-negation, the rhetoric also unveils women's resistance to prevailing gender norms through its portrait of the tomboyish Jo. Many critics believe that Jo’s explicit voicing of anger regarding gender constructions of femininity is the key to understanding her resistance; however, explicit displays of temper only reveal half of Jo’s defiance. Jo also utilizes humor as another way to subversively question gender ideals. In particular, Jo harnesses what M.M. Bakhtin calls carnivalesque humor as means of destabilizing and even overturning culturally imposed gender restraints. Jo’s comedy articulates her battle against domesticity by inverting the societal expectations of femininity and thereby resisting them. By the end of the novel, Jo has to accept more of a domestic role: however, the carnivalesque humor in the text does not altogether disappear. Instead of the overt verbal humor seen in Jo’s dialogue, Alcott’s narrator continues to utilize ironic and subversive humor to cast a negative light on society’s gender ideals. Humor needs to be read as one of the most essential sources of subversive social criticism in Alcott’s famous portrait of girlhood.

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